I have a simple question for the Cat People.
I refer to the (fictional) woman in the New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” who found herself being treated like a porn actress when she went drunkenly to bed with a guy after one and a half dates, as well as the pseudonymous “Grace,” who similarly found herself being steered toward skin-flick behavior on her first and only date with the actor Aziz Ansari. Their spiritual ancestor, going back a few years, is the “Duke PowerPoint girl,” Karen Owen, whose superficially laddish and cavalier recounting of her drunken hookups with lacrosse players was actually a vengeful cry of pain about being treated so shabbily that one such sex partner refused to see her again long enough even to return her earrings in person.
Joining their numbers now is Courtney Sender, who published in Friday’s New York Times a hurt-feelings epic about how a man she had sex with two hours after meeting him via the Web subsequently ghosted her following a second tryst. Apparently he wasn’t deeply invested in the relationship, or indeed shallowly invested in it, or even of a mind to bear any more responsibility for Sender’s feelings than he would have with a prostitute after conclusion of business. Unlike a prostitute or a porn performer, though, neither Sender nor any of the others has even a few dollars to show for her efforts, hence the need for these women to seek the retribution of humiliation via the sickeningly detailed tell-all. (Sender’s website is headed by the legend, “Hell hath no fury . . .”)
Given the uniformly dismal outcomes of all of these sex stories, my question is this: Would these women, or the many supporters cheering them on in social media, counsel their daughters to behave as they do? You wouldn’t loan 50 bucks to someone you had known for two hours. Why yield your body so indifferently? What did you think you were likely to gain from such wild-kingdom behavior? Even in the most febrile, Looking for Mr. Goodbar days of the 70s disco scene, having sex with someone you had known for two hours would have been considered a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. In the days when Donna Summer ruled the dance charts, a young couple might have spent at least a few hours on the dance floor, likely with inhibitions loosened by various substances, before retreating to the satin together. The ages of first herpes and then AIDS dampened animal spirits. A certain level of prudence returned.
Sender’s piece is so depressingly familiar that it could be the cry of any number of disappointed single women, and so it isn’t obvious what makes it interesting enough to make it worthy of the Times in the first place. Except: There is one fresh angle. Her young rutting partner was bizarrely insistent on repeatedly asking her verbal permission. At each (precisely described, a la the Penthouse letters page) stage of the encounter he asked whether it was okay to proceed to the next. This insistent formality struck the young lady as obtuse given the circumstances. “I invited a guy from Tinder to my empty apartment on a snow day. Let’s just assume you have blanket consent,” she told him at one point as he continued to seek permission from a horizontal angle, she having one leg wrapped around him and “my whole body arcing toward him.” He replied, “I’m not comfortable with that.”
The young fellow (Sender is 30, her two-time bonk buddy 24) had apparently been programmed by some nominally woman-protecting campus-hookup ministry to believe that the problem with today’s sex culture is simply one of consent. Obtain full express verbal consent at each stage of the encounter, goes the reasoning, and that way nobody gets hurt. Sender got hurt. Emotionally, she was devastated. She didn’t like it when, after they slept together a second time and he left her arms cooing softly about the lovely meal he would cook her when next they met, he instead simply went incommunicado. She texted him “playfully at first, then more pressing [sic].” He ignored her. She pleaded her case in the Court of Roommates. They were puzzled by her puzzlement. What did she expect? Well, she explained, “He asked for my consent, over and over. So sex felt like a sacred act, and then he disappeared.” One roommate replied with a laugh, “A sacred act? Girl, you sure don’t treat it like one.”
Here it seems to become clear that Sender’s behavior with this man was not atypical for her. So goes la vie amoureuse among the Cat People: random hookup with almost total stranger results in hurt feelings, at least for the woman, along with general confusion. How did this happen? goes the implicit cry. I thought he was nice. For “Grace,” the man in question was a celebrity. In the case of Margot from “Cat Person,” the guy seemed clever and warm in his texts, albeit chilly and weird in person. Sender evidently was taken by her date’s references to poetry. Which were made after a Tinder exchange led her to invite him directly to her apartment, where she was alone, for what can only have struck both of them as a bedroom audition.
The Cat People are well educated. (Sender’s website boasts that she has degrees from Yale, Johns Hopkins, and even Harvard Divinity School, which one supposes is giving its students strange ideas about what constitutes a “sacred act.”) Yet they are oblivious to the obvious. It appears to be time for another Great Relearning, romance edition. Sex that is treated as meaningless, casual, transactional, and commitment-free by women is bound to find eager takers among men. Women who understand — as the Cat People discovered, to their chagrin — that sex brings with it the potential for hurt feelings would be wise to take it more seriously than passing felines going at it between the garbage cans.